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7 Mancunian writers defined by the north

7 Mancunian writers defined by the north

Manchester. A city of creativity that's brought about some of Britain's greatest music, design, and literature. Let's take a look at some of the authors defined by this cultural city.

Manchester's bind with the written word

The city was instrumental in the rise of the printing press, and can lay claim to the oldest public library in the English speaking world. Chetham’s Library is the place Engels and Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto, and where John Dee claimed to have met the devil—the scorchmark a hot hoof left on an old table being the only evidence for this).

The City’s influence has persisted to the modern day. Indeed, it was on a delayed train journey from Manchester to London that J.K.Rowling came up with the idea for Harry Potter (maybe late-running train services aren’t always so bad).

The following seven writers pepper this entire period. Some loved Manchester more than others, but in each case the city certainly made an impact.


John Cooper Clarke

John Cooper Clarke is known as the Bard of Salford (not quite Manchester, we know). The nation’s punk poet laureate is probably most famous for Beasley Street, his verse account of urban decay, and to hear him talk of his childhood spent in the Mancunian slums it’s easy to see where the inspiration may have sprung from:

"I used to think trees were dirty because when I was a kid in Salford you'd climb them and come off filthy, it was like you'd been up a chimney… And even if you got a stretch of park you just had to scrape the grass and there were, like, cinders underneath… it was horrible…"

Cooper Clarke’s razor wit helped him survive the hostility that outlandish figures like him drew at the height of the punk scene. For proof look no further than his seminal collection Ten Years In An Open-Necked Shirt.


Anthony Burgess

Anthony Burgess
Via Anthony Burgess.org

Born in Harpurhey in 1917, Anthony Burgess grew up in Manchester, studying at Xaverian College and the City University before leaving in 1940.

Although he would only return sporadically, Burgess always spoke of the city with great affection—the exception being the portrayal of his Catholic education, which found their way into novels such as Tremor of Intent and Any Old Iron.

Little Wilson and Big God, the first of his two-part memoir, that’s the best source for detail of his Mancunian upbringing, including a wonderfully spurious claim to royal descent.


Thomas de Quincey

Thomas de Quincey - Mancunian
Via Wikipedia

Thomas De Quincey was born in Manchester 1785, but lasted just seventeen years (including two particularly miserable ones at Manchester Grammar School) before running away.

De Quincey rambled in Wales for a while before eventually settling in London, and insofar as his writing can be said to belong to any city, it has to be to the big smoke.

In stark contrast to his affluent beginnings in Manchester, De Quincey ended up a penniless drug addict, marooned on the streets of London’s West End. His masterpiece Confessions of an English Opium-Eater chronicles all the feverishness, paranoia and hallucinations of this period.

In many ways we have his hatred of Manchester is to thank for this fascinating piece of writing.


Tibor Fischer

Tibor Fischer
Via City and Guilds Art School

Under the Frog is an astonishing novel that tracks the lives of two basketballers through communist Hungary’s years of revolution.

Usually when someone claims a book will make you ‘laugh-out-loud’ it is wise to take the statement with a pinch of salt, but Under the Frog—whose cover is garlanded with such reviews—is the real deal.

It also packs quite a punch, in amongst all the absurdity. In terms of subject matter it couldn’t be much further away from 1950s Stockport, but that’s where the author Tibor Fischer was born.


Frances Hodgson Burnett

Frances Hodgson Burnett
Via Wikipedia

Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in Cheetham Hill in 1849. Her father, Edwin, was a wealthy iron-monger. To this day should you potter down Deansgate you can still see the red-brick opulence in which the family business operated. However, Burnett would see both sides of Manchester.

When her father died the Hodgsons moved to the then squalid terraces of Salford (the same slums Engels described in his Condition of the Working Classes in England). The family sank further into crisis, until emigrating to live with relatives in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Although thousands of miles away, Lancashire had a great influence on the writing career Hodgson Burnett forged, and it’s most clearly seen in her novel That Lass O’Lowrie’s. Hodgson Burnett’s greatest success, however, was that scourge of the Radio Times Christmas listings; The Secret Garden.


Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson was born in Manchester in 1959, and the fiction she writes is deeply rooted in the North. Her work manages to span several genres, by way of two extreme examples, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is a highly biographical account of her childhood, and The Daylight Gate a gloriously macabre tale about seventeenth century witch trials, both of which are set in her native Lancashire.

Winterson, currently a professor of creative writing at Manchester University, explains:

"I am from Manchester and the north is part of me; how I write, as well as who I am."


Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson was born in Prestwich in 1942. Since leaving the city to study at Cambridge, Jacobson has divided his time between Sydney and London—so perhaps Manchester can't claim to be a huge influence. In fact, Jacobson stresses that the Jewish humourist tradition has had a greater influence on his writing than any particular place. 

Plenty of these are dealt with in his consistently funny novels, the pick of which being the Booker-winning The Finkler Question.


Be sure to pay Manchester a visit during Manchester Literature Festival in October



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